Lure of coastal life outweighs dangers
Hurricanes hit fast-growing areas
Rising sea levels and fierce storms have failed to stop relentless population growth along U.S. coasts in recent years, a new Associated Press analysis shows. The latest punishing hurricanes directly hit two of the country’s fastest growing regions: coastal Texas around Houston and resort areas of southwest Florida.
Nothing seems to curb America’s appetite for life near the sea, especially in the warmer climates of the South. Coastal development destroys natural barriers such as islands and wetlands, promotes erosion and flooding, and positions more buildings and people in the path of future destruction, according to researchers and policy advisers who study hurricanes.
“History gives us a lesson, but we don’t always learn from it,” said Graham Tobin, a disaster researcher at the University of South Florida in Tampa. That city took a glancing hit from Hurricane Irma but suffered less flooding and damage than some other parts of the state.
In 2005, coastal communities took heed of more than 1,800 deaths and $108 billion in damages from Hurricane Katrina. Images of New Orleans under water elicited solemn resolutions that such a thing should never happen again — until Superstorm Sandy inundated lower Manhattan in 2012. Last year, Hurricane Matthew spread more deaths, flooding and blackouts across Florida, Georgia and the Carolinas. From 2010-2016, major hurricanes and tropical storms are blamed for more than 280 deaths and $100 billion in damages, according to data from the federal National Centers for Environmental Information.
Four counties around Houston took the full force of Harvey. The population of those counties expanded by 12 percent from 2010 to 2016, to a total of 5.3 million people, the AP analysis shows.
During the same years, two of Florida’s fastestgrowing coastline counties — retirement-friendly Lee and Manatee, both south of Tampa — welcomed 16 percent more people. That area took a second direct hit from Irma after it made first landfall in the Florida Keys.
Overall growth of 10 percent in Texas Gulf counties and 9 percent along Florida’s coasts during the same period was surpassed only by South Carolina. Its seaside population ballooned by more than 13 percent.
Nationally, coastline counties grew an average of 5.6 percent since 2010, while inland counties gained just 4 percent. This recent trend tracks with decades of development along U.S. coasts. Between 1960 and 2008, the national coastline population rose by 84 percent, compared with 64 percent inland, according to the Census Bureau.
In Horry County, S.C., where 19 percent growth has led all of the state’s coastline counties, Irma caused only minor coastal flooding. The county’s low property taxes are made possible by rapid development and tourism fees, allowing retirees from the North and Midwest to live more cheaply.
Add the area’s moderate weather, appealing golf courses, and long white strands and maybe no one can slow development there. “I don’t see how you do it,” said Johnny Vaught, vice chairman of the county council. “The only thing you can do is modulate it, so developments are well designed.”
Waves pound a seawall in Biscayne Bay, Fla., on Sept. 10. Defying any threats from weather, coastal counties’ population growth has been above average for decades.